Legacy of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel

After actor Heath Ledger's untimely death shocked the nation, his body was taken to the Frank E. Campbell funeral chapel, which has a long history of protecting the privacy of the rich and famous and their loved ones.

In 2001, the New York City funeral home agreed to open its extensive archives to "20/20" for a rare look at how this chapel played a major role in the canonization of celebrities.

Gene Schultz, now retired, was president of the Frank E. Campbell funeral chapel, which, over the last century, has arranged funerals for such luminaries as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; actors James Cagney, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford; composers Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky and John Lennon; wild west legend Bat Masterson; mobster Frank Costello; muppeteer Jim Henson; business tycoons Malcolm Forbes and William Randolph Hearst; impresario Ed Sullivan; singer Judy Garland and murdered rap artist Biggie Smalls.


Smalls' 1997 funeral typified the security concerns that have often made police such a visible component here. His funeral ended with a peaceful procession of limousines back to his Brooklyn neighborhood.

"In the past, we have had the news media coming into our facility, checking to find out if there's any information given out, for someone who has passed away that is high profile. We turn them away immediately," Schultz said.

International Acclaim

Frank Campbell first drew international attention in August 1926, when Rudolph Valentino, a romantic idol, who was one of the biggest stars in the movies at the time, died of a ruptured ulcer at the age of 31.

"The crowds of people that gathered at the funeral home were immense ... to the point where the police became overwhelmed, creating an atmosphere of ... probably of something that had never existed before in funeral service," Schultz said.

In fact, Campbell, himself, had paid some of the mourners to add to this massive outpouring of grief. Even before that landmark day, the rest of the funeral industry had begun to take notice of, and learn from, Campbell. He's credited with originating the ideas of adding chapels that handle services for all faiths, and of buying obituary notices in the newspapers.

Schultz got his first exposure to the psychology of these enormous crowds when many mourners returned again and again to pay their final respects to singer and actress Judy Garland.

"I had never been involved with any type of crowds that extensive. We did run 24 hours non-stop. People paying respects sometimes walked through as many as three times, the same person," Schultz said. "I don't consider that to be morbid, whatsoever. I think they were there for total respect and a love for the individual."

Decoy Caskets

When John Lennon was assassinated on Dec. 8, 1980, the media presumed that the Campbell home would be handling the arrangements, and camped out there almost from the moment the police reports were filed.

"The press was here shortly after that, waiting at our door for any indication, whatsoever, of Mr. Lennon coming to our chapel. We arranged with Mrs. Lennon to come in. She signed the necessary papers for the cremation, then went back to the medical examiner's office and picked Mr. Lennon up," Schultz said. "There was so much media, with the potential for so much chaos, that when Lennon's body was moved from the chapel to be cremated, a decoy hearse was sent out."

And, according to Schultz, the press followed the decoy.

"Five minutes later, the correct hearse came in, pulled up to the door, and Mr. Lennon was brought out in the alternative container, and the director carried with him the urn that was going to be used, and proceeded to Ferncliff Crematory in Hartsdale, N.Y.," Schultz said.

'They Want Closure'

The business is no longer family owned; it was purchased by a mortuary conglomerate. But this long-standing, high discretion enterprise has hardly changed; again, it stood as a backdrop to those who came to mourn Ledger today, as his casket was carried from the home, and the media who came to watch.

And the lessons learned over more than 80 years are as universal as the emotions that have filled these streets — the intense dedication and unity of mourners, the familial connections felt for people they have never met, the volatility of grief, and the protocols that surround the business of it all.

"They need to be a part of that life that they ... have never touched personally, individually, privately, and in person — but through the media, through television, through the movies, it was very much a part of their growing up and their life. They want closure," Schultz said. "People from every walk of life."